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Standing Together Through the California Wildfires

FebFireFeature 2_9_18

When Akemi Shapiro, director of member care for the MPI Southern California Chapter, went to a chapter board retreat in Temecula, Calif., Jan. 7-8, she had no idea that when she returned to work she would be unable to get home to Santa Barbara for several days. The Crowne Plaza Hotel Ventura Beach, where she is director of sales and marketing, is just 30 miles from Santa Barbara and would be her home for a while.

To be sure, things had been chaotic for about a month at that point throughout both Santa Barbara and Ventura counties, as the largest forest fire in California history—labeled the Thomas Fire—had swept into the area on Dec. 6, consuming about 281,000 acres of formerly green vegetation and killing two people.

But Ventura itself had not been significantly hit by the fire. The Crowne Plaza, for instance, only came away with a smoky smell inside, and that was easily abated with the cleaning of drapes and other soft goods. The hotel never even had to close during the fire.

Like most residents of Santa Barbara and Ventura, Shapiro had every reason to think the worst was over when she headed off to the MPI chapter board retreat. And then, as fate would have it, four to five inches of rain hit the area and caused a catastrophic flood—with deadly mudslides.

“It was a really strange situation,” Shapiro says. “We had this huge fire that burned thousands of acres and only two people were killed. Now, as a result of the flooding and the mudslides we have 17 confirmed dead and 17 still missing.” (The death toll had reached 20, with four still missing, at press time.)

Because so much of the forests, grass and other foliage that covered the mountain sides immediately east of towns such as Santa Barbara, Ventura and Montecito was destroyed, a rain of no more than five inches caused the flooding and mudslides. Even the mountain soil itself was charred, making it less absorbent and causing a huge volume of water to cascade downhill, bringing mud, trees and boulders down upon residential areas and a major traffic artery, Interstate 101, making it impossible to drive from Los Angeles up to Santa Barbara.

Initially, 31 miles of the 101 between Santa Barbara and Ventura was closed but it reopened after 12 days on Jan. 21.

What kept Shapiro from going home immediately after the flooding: A 30-mile drive up the 101 to her home in Santa Barbara suddenly became a 236-mile drive that involved going east to Interstate 5, driving north and then coming back west and taking 101 south to approach Santa Barbara from the north.

Immediately after the floods, the only direct routes north from Ventura to Santa Barbara involved taking a ferry or catching a train. So on Sunday, Jan. 14, Shapiro was able to get home by train.

People who couldn’t get to their homes and workers who were restoring the communities from flood damage became the customer base for hotels such as the Crowne Plaza Ventura Beach during December and into January.

“The meetings and Christmas parties scheduled for December were pretty much all cancelled because of the fires,” Shapiro says. “But we refunded 100 percent of their deposits and when the people who were under evacuation orders or in some cases had lost their homes came to stay with us, we were glad to take them in and we did not jack up the prices for staying here.”

That, she said, was all just part of a prevailing attitude of people helping each other get through the disaster.

The good news is that the central business districts of Santa Barbara and Ventura were not significantly damaged by the fires or the floods, according to residents interviewed for this article. More good news is that Interstate 101 between Los Angeles and Ventura never closed. That resulted in the Crowne Plaza Ventura Beach, which includes 235 oceanview guest rooms and 19,000 square feet of meeting space (including a 6,600-square-foot ballroom) landing an unexpected group whose event began Jan. 15.

“It was a group that flew into LA and was planning to meet in Santa Barbara, but because they could not drive from LA to Santa Barbara, canceled for that location and rescheduled at our hotel,” Shapiro says. “So we can truly say we’re completely back in business from both the individual traveler and the meetings side.”

A Surreal Southern California
Shortly after the flooding and the mudslides occurred, Lanny Sherwin, a longtime resident of Montecito, got out for a pragmatic bicycle ride—pragmatic because by riding across a bridge above Interstate 101, he could reach a grocery store. When he looked down, he was stunned.

“I was just shocked,” says Sherwin, an artist and songwriter who lives in what some call a gilded community, because its residents include Oprah Winfrey, Ellen Degeneres and Rob Lowe. “What I saw was more like a swamp than a major highway that carries many thousands of cars every day. It was filled with water and mud, parts of trees and houses, big boulders; it was just a nightmarish scene.”

That was just one of the surreal experiences for Sherwin, who had evacuated for much of the fires but decided to stay in his home during the flooding.

“The air quality during the fires was just horrendous, making breathing a chore,” he says. “That was because of all the ash in the air from the fires. You could look out into the streets and it looked like they were covered with snow, but it wasn’t snow, it was ash.”

Sherwin found himself giving people in the streets bottled water and paper masks to breath through.

“The ash particles would get in your mouth and made everything inside it feel gritty; you had to keep taking sips of water to wash your mouth out,” he says.

Montecito turned out to be one of the most hard-hit by the mudslides, which destroyed about 100 homes in the community and killed at least 20 people, with at least four still missing.

“At first I thought, ‘I am really tired of being out of my home; how bad can mud be?’ So I stayed at home,” Sherwin says.

But later he heard of a few people who had literally just opened the front doors of their homes on the night of the flood and then were swept outside into their front yards and down the street—which had become like rivers—only to be found dead later. Others saved themselves by clinging to fences and trees.

So Sherwin chose to obey what became a mandatory evacuation and moved into a hotel.

“The hotels became places of refuge for the the community,” he says. “You could go to the hotel restaurant and see a cross section of your neighbors. We saw everyone from my wife’s doctor to the woman who delivers fresh eggs to our house.”

But Montecito was something of an anomaly in terms of flood damage.

“Fortunately, none of the tourism/meetings infrastructure in the cities of Santa Barbara and Goleta was destroyed or damaged,” Kathy Janega-Dykes, president and CEO of Visit Santa Barbara’s president and CEO, reported on Jan. 17. “The Thomas Fire and subsequent mudslide in the town of Montecito did not reach these areas. All hotels and restaurants are open.”

The only significant problem on that date was the continued closure of a section of Interstate 101, and that was projected to be open well before the end of January.

The MPI Southern California Chapter, eager to help the tourism and meeting industry in the area hit by the Thomas Fire and Montecito area mudslides, is involved in outreach efforts and in publicizing the status of venues in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties that are up and running and serving groups, according to Joe Marcy, CMP, chapter president.

“It’s always important to get the word out,” he says.

Napa and Sonoma: We’re Back in Business
In October, Northern California experienced its own devastating fire event, known in many circles as the “Northern California Firestorm.” The fires began Oct. 21 and consumed more than 245,000 acres, including land in the popular tourism and group event counties of Napa and Sonoma.

But at this point, industry spokespeople in both counties say the important message that they want the world to know is that they are back up and running—and have been for months.

Clay Gregory, president and CEO of Visit Napa Valley, says the hotels and wineries that are the foundation of what appeals to groups visiting Napa County did not suffer significant damage at all, and everything was back up and running within a couple of weeks of the fires. That includes more than 150 hotels and 400 wineries, he says.

“We were fortunate in that we did not suffer anything like what Santa Rosa [a key tourism city in Sonoma County] did,” he says.

Gregory says there was a great outreach to help both Napa and Sonoma.

“At one point we had 42 different fundraising efforts up on our website, raising money to help restoration efforts,” he says.

One big benefactor, Gregory says, was Visit California, the state’s official tourism marketing entity, which has done more than US$1 million worth of promotion to help Napa, Sonoma and Santa Barbara counties.

Tim Zahner, COO of Sonoma County Tourism, says that while there was some significant fire damage, Sonoma has bounced back significantly, thanks in no small part to outreach from those in the industry around the state and country.

“I just want to say thank you to the meeting planner community in general, because of the immediate response from that community saying, ‘What can we do to help?’” he says.

The fires only affected 10 percent of the area of Sonoma County, Zahner says, but did impact some hotels and wineries. The Hilton Sonoma Wine Country and the Fountaingrove Inn were burned and are not yet open again, he says.

“At the time those hotels were burned, we had other hotels being built. We lost 407 hotel rooms, but we are gaining 431 hotel rooms during 2018 through new hotel openings,” he says. “So we are bouncing back. The Hyatt Regency in Santa Rosa is adding about 100 rooms. We are looking a 662 new rooms coming on line in the next two years. We have more than 425 wineries open to the public now. We lost only one.”

Zahner says Sonoma County Tourism is offering an incentive to meeting planners who bring business to Sonoma with credits to their group’s hotel master account as well as a donation in the group’s name to the North Bay Fire Relief Fund.

Lucy Giovando Watts, CMP, CMM, a proud third-generation Sonoma County resident and president of the MPI Northern California Chapter, says chapter members were monitoring the fires in Sonoma from the day they started and responded with a quick initiative to help fire victims in the industry there.

“We had members in Sonoma who literally took fire victims into their homes,” she says.

The chapter also raised money and brought gift cards to victims at an event the chapter organized in the county.

About the Author

Roland Stiteler
Rowland Stiteler

Rowland Stiteler, a veteran meeting industry journalist, is a writer and editor for The Meeting Professional.